Island hopping in Scotland is often portrayed as rugged and adventurous: dependent on tides, fair weather and ferry timetables. An island’s very remoteness is part of its mystery and appeal. But for those wishing to enjoy a short break, without any drama, there are some Scottish islands that fit the bill. Easy to reach, easy to explore, and easy to tackle as a simple day trip or a relaxed weekend break, the tiny island of Great Cumbrae is often overlooked, but it’s a wee gem for a family getaway. And if, like me, you like ticking off Scottish islands as you visit them, then Cumbrae is one of the most straightforward islands to visit.

The night before setting sail we checked into the newly reopened and refurbished Gleddoch Hotel, just 20 minutes from Glasgow, for spa treatments, swimming and general R&R, before our ‘rugged’ island adventure began: we desired some indulgent memories of the mainland before we set sail. But, truth be told, reaching Cumbrae is remarkably civilised. From the small harbour town of Largs, ferries run with astonishing regularity, to the point that tickets aren’t sold in advance, simply picked up at the pier. Due to this flexibility we dipped into the iconic Nardini’s for an ice-cream - there was no stress or the usual rush for the ferry, we could catch one as we pleased. When we decided to board, our eight minute crossing was over in a flash, and we drove the five miles from the terminal to the island’s capital of Millport.

Millport is the one town on this small but perfectly formed island. Cumbrae is only 2.5 miles long, relatively flat, with a main road running its circumference of just over ten miles. This leads to the main attraction of the island - cycling. We’re not talking high intensity, high octane sport, but cycling for all. There are several bike hire companies on Cumbrae, but we left ‘On Your Bike!’ with two bikes, including one ‘tagalong’ for our three year old, and a trailer for our two year old. In fair weather cycling is the best pace at which to sightsee. We pedalled north, along the beach, waving to the iconic ‘Crocodile Rock’, out of the town, past the grand houses peppered along the coastline, reaching Sport Scotland’s National Sailing Centre, before passing the ferry terminal once more. This indicated that we were almost half way around the island. Once cyclists head north from the ferry terminal it’s a virtual coastal wilderness, and it’s stunning. Few cars use this road, as most locals have little requirement to travel beyond Millport and the ferry terminal, so apart from a few motorhomes, tourists driving around the island, or fellow cyclists, we had the road and the scenery to ourselves. It would be easy to choose an isolated beach for a picnic, a paddle or a breather. On a warm summer’s day this experience would be idyllic.

Cycling in late autumn is certainly invigorating. At the tip of the island, we peddled straight into a headwind, much to the disdain of our tiny co-passengers. But when we started heading south, the wind abated and our three year old helped us pedal furiously back to Millport. The round trip took 1.5 hours, and would no doubt be faster for those with excellent fitness, and those not carrying the additional weight of children. Cycling around the entirety of the island is an achievable distance, route and duration. We felt such a sense of achievement and it was an excellent introduction to Cumbrae.

If cycling doesn’t appeal, or if the weather’s against you, there are other quirky destinations to explore. The Robertson Museum is home to a small aquarium and museum. Running to about six tanks, it’s modest, but our children were enthralled with the creatures within, such as crabs, starfish, plaice and urchins. The youngsters then spent twenty minutes fishing with wooden rods and toy fish, in the aquarium’s ‘sustainability’ themed game. Finally, in the museum, drawers of shells, kept them occupied for longer than expected.

From there, a recommended lunch stop is the cafe within Garrison House. The house was built in 1745, home to the Captain and officers of the Revenue Sailing Ship, the ‘Royal George’. In its day this was a base for the authorities attempting to crack down on smuggling in the Clyde, today its modern cafe offers an excellent children’s menu, great power juices and freshly made smoothies, as well as hearty soups and sandwiches. The building is also home to the Museum of the Cumbraes, giving a solid overview of the island’s history, from early settlers and the smuggling origins of Millport, to how steam ships transformed the way of life on the island forever. With sea views, gothic architecture, and palm trees in the front garden, it’s an interesting building in its own right.

A short walk from Garrison House is the UK’s smallest cathedral. Despite this unusual claim to fame, the cathedral is remarkably grand for an island the size of Cumbrae, and its sweeping treelined avenue is certainly impressive. Unlocked, free and open to the public, the cathedral is home to beautiful metalwork, intricate stained glass windows and carefully crafted stonework. Outside there are several trails that can be traced around the grounds. We followed the circular forest route, seeking out muddy puddles and splashing opportunities with every step. It’s also possible to overnight at the cathedral, as it offers sixteen bedrooms, a mix of single, double and twin (some of which are en-suite). In terms of accommodation the only hotel on the island is the Royal George, and there are multiple self-catering options on the island to choose between.

The next day, full of tales of Cumbrae, we sailed back to Largs. There’s something about visiting an island that makes mainland dwellers feel like they’ve escaped everyday life, and Cumbrae is without doubt a very easy island to reach. Visitors don’t need to plan extensively or book in advance, just nip over when the weather’s looking good. The islanders we met were notably friendly and, importantly, there was more to do, in all weathers, for such a small island. From a personal point of view I wonder how many three year olds can say they’ve cycled around a Scottish island? Would your family undertake the Cumbrae cycling challenge?

How to Get There

Sail with Caledonian MacBrayne form Largs. Foot passengers are taken by bus directly to Millport so visitors don’t even need a car. And, in the summer months, it’s possible to reach Cumbrae aboard the Waverley Paddle Steamer.


Great Cumbrae is the larger of the two islands known as The Cumbraes. The smaller island is privately owned, and known as Little Cumbrae.